A confession: I question what is not familiar. Am I normal, a rebel, or just a curmudgeon? Who knows.
When in doubt, I fall back on my sociology roots. That body of knowledge describes how professional niches, cultures, and communities create distinct languages so that group members can distinguish their “in-group” from all “others.” Jewelers are like any other group. This blog explores how jewelers use the word “precious” as well as how I stretch the meaning of the word.
Traditional jewelers monetize what they consider to be precious. For example, natural pearls (pearls formed with no human intervention) are considered more precious than cultured pearls. Only 1 in 10,000 natural pearls make it into fine jewelry. Natural pearls are so precious that, according to the history of the profession, a double strand of natural pearls “bought” the property that is now the flagship of Cartier on 5th Avenue in New York City.
The natural, saltwater pearl pictured below is over 33cts, and sold for over a million dollars in 2014.i
Cultured pearls, those “seeded” by foreign objects, are less precious than natural pearls. If Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of the same revered brand, had not cultivated pearls, few of us could afford pearls today.ii
But what about other interpretations, namely popularity? Sapphires, particularly the intense blues found in Kashmir and Ceylon, are prized and pricy. But, sapphires exist in almost all colors of the rainbow: yellow, orange, pink, purple, peach, teal, green, even grey, etc. Visit my blog “Priceless: A Sapphire Seen Around the world….” for a little more information. These many-colored sapphires are called fancy sapphires. While some fancy sapphires are rare, most people don’t know fancy sapphires exist.
Must precious must mean pricy? If sapphires represent a case in point, my answer is: no. First, fancy sapphires are shopped less than blue sapphires, and are thus often less expensive. Second, the majority of sapphires on the market today have been heated. That's to your advantage in terms of price and lasting quality. Heating intensifies color and produces a permanent structural change that enhances clarity. Since heirloom quality, unheated sapphires represent 1% of the market, most of us benefit from heated sapphires, especially heated fancy sapphires. When shopping sapphires, ask if a gem is heated. Honest sellers will tell you, and if a seller hesitates, walk away.
Tourmalines are another personal favorite. They exhibit the widest array of colors of any gem.iii They are a 7-7.5 on the Mohs scale, and therefore are not as hard as sapphires, at 9 on the Mohs scale, but when handled with respect tourmalines resist scratching and chipping. So, they potentially last a long time.
Tourmalines are also cost effective. Jewelers seem to resist selling tourmalines, possibly because they go by many names.iv For example, Rubellite is the name given to pink, red, purplish red, orange red, and other colors in this range. Schorl is black tourmaline. Indicolite applies to a range of colors from dark blue to greenish blue. Paraíba, the name of a state in Brazil, refers to intense blue, greenish blue, or blue tourmalines. The list goes on from here.
If the intent is to avoid sensory overload, I understand the reluctance of jewelers to use various names for a gem, but, this practice is also a disservice to customers. Consider the following example:
Perhaps the most obvious sign of a lack of appreciation of gemstones is the common use of the term "semiprecious". While in a famous retail store, GEMOLOGIST, a salesman noticed a couple examining, with obvious interest and appreciation, an attractive brooch set with green gems. The man ask about the stones in the piece. The "salesman,” if he could be called that, answered, "Oh, those are just semiprecious stones called tourmaline." The prospective customers left the store immediately without looking further.
This example points up a practice that is all too common among jewelers. The word "semiprecious" seems to denote second best. Therefore, the buying public, either lacking sufficient knowledge or appreciation of these gems, or unable to find them for sale by a dealer who has the knowledge and appreciation that they themselves lack, buy synthetics or glass imitations in preference to the doubtful value of a semiprecious gem.v
Agates are the least expensive gem discussed here. As someone who designs through the lens of fine fabrics and gardens, I prize agate for their endless, fascinating patterns.
So many forms and expressions of color draw me in. The picture above is of Thibetan Dzi. I used this Dzi as the main gem in my necklace “Looking East.” The agates pictured below are a snakeskin Agate (see also the cover photo), another Dzi from Thibet, and a highly prized blue lace agate from Mexico (cut and polished by Sam Silver Hawk).
Any wonder why I adore agates? No two are alike.
I consider all gems to be precious for at least two reasons. First, I am grateful to all the people who “give us” gems found in the earth and our waters. Think of the danger and labor involved in locating, harvesting, grading, and then cutting all types of gems. All of these steps require training, a discerning eye, and patience. As of now, skilled artists at all levels are dying off and are being replaced by people lacking the same level of dedication and training.
Few people outside the gem industry realize the true nature of a gemstone’s journey from the mine to the counter or website of a store. Whether the gem is being offered to consumers at a traditional jewelry store’s counter, through an online store, or a television broadcast, the journey always involves a tremendous effort. Tons of earth and countless hours of labor are needed to bring a gem from mine to market.
Second, some cultures, especially cultures that value community over individuality, and that have lived on their lands since time immemorial, will not allow gem mining. They forbid mining since it destroys what is sacred to their community. From a distance and another culture it is easy to wonder, but I honor these people and prefer mining operations that treat the land for what is it – our precious home.
ii Round pearls are more expensive than baroque (i.e, any off-round) pearls. My previous blog goes into more depth.