Over the last two decades, something of a phenomenon has swept across our industry. So much so in fact that I don’t know how to handle it most times. See, I used to be the smart one in a one-on-one technical gemological discussion. Now it seems the home shopping channels have dumbed me down. Here’s how it happened.
Way back in time, like say the ‘80s, there were only a handful of gemstones on the market - Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, Citrine, Peridot, Topaz, Pearl, Amethyst, Aquamarine and a few others. Nowadays, we’re bombarded by seemingly hundreds and hundreds of new gemstones every year. How in the world did all of these fabulous gemstones, like Mystic Topaz, manage to stay hidden all of these hundreds of thousands of years without being discovered? And, how in the world did the home shopping channels find all of them in a mere 20 years? Well, it goes something like this.
From the beginning of time until today, a ruby and a sapphire have been the exact same stone... just different colors. Mineralogically they are crystallized aluminum oxide which we call corundum. Therein lies the problem? Whoever named this mineral didn’t have a clue about marketing. Of course, they named it a couple of hundred years ago, so maybe they didn’t know all about the subtle nuances of marketing to the “me generation” in the olden days.
Most consumers, and every home shopping host, have no earthly idea that a Ruby and a Sapphire are the same stone. Corundum crystallizes in all colors of the rainbow from colorless to dark black and all variations in between. If it’s red, it’s a ruby. If it’s any other color it’s a sapphire. Most people think of sapphire as a blue stone, but corundum that’s any color other than red is considered a sapphire.
Like you, I have my share of customers that are addicted to the jewelry television channels. Just this morning I was informed by a customer that the darker the blue the more valuable the sapphire is. I said, “Really?”
She then went on to tell me that rubies are much more durable than sapphires. I said, “Really?”
She then told me that rubies are mined in the Yucatan peninsula where the conditions are ideal. I said, “Really?” My mother always taught me to just say “Really” instead of what I want to say. These hosts have to fill 30 minutes up on one stone and they’re just making that stuff up. They’re there because they’re pretty... not because they’re gemologists! Oh, and as far as I know, no crystallized aluminum oxide has every been mined on the
So let me set the record straight. Some lighter sapphires are more valuable than their darker counterparts. It’s complicated, what can I say. Rubies and sapphires have the exact same durability. In fact, most bench jewelers would agree that they are the perfect gemstone. They don’t really scratch, they don’t really break, and you can heat ‘em up to a thousand degrees or more during a repair and it doesn’t hurt them. The only difference between the two is the color, and that was determined a million years ago by the trace elements that were present during crystallization, not a TV host. But, if you want to start an argument between a bunch of gemologists, hand them a dark pink piece of corundum and ask them if it’s a light red ruby or a pink sapphire? Someone’s gonna cry before it’s over.
So, are there any other stones out there that are the exact same stone, but different colors that the home shopping shows have butchered? Let me think. YES!
Aquamarine and emerald are the same stone. But with these two there is a very distinct difference. One is a good stone (aquamarine) and one is a bad stone (emerald). Mineralogically, these stones are called beryl. An aquamarine is a very stable, durable gemstone. An emerald is an extremely unstable gemstone just waiting for the chance to shatter. Chemically they are the same, but physically they are not. The trace elements of iron and chromium cause the problem.
Iron mixes well with Beryl and produces a light blue, beautiful, durable gemstone. Chromium on the other hand hates beryl and beryl hates it right back. But joined together they form a magnificent green gemstone called emerald. But just look at an emerald wrong and it’ll break.
The one they get wrong the most is quartz. Quartz is the most common mineral on the planet. For years and years and years, in the jewelry business, we had purple quartz we called amethyst and yellow quartz we called citrine. Hell, we even had yellow and purple quartz we called ametrine. And, truth be told, I like both of these gemstones, but I’m not crazy about what the shopping channels have done to quartz.
Quartz can be treated in many different ways to create unlimited colors. And, just like paint, someone has come up with a name for the new color. Don’t ask me who, but someone dictated that all “new” gemstones have to have a name that ends in “ites.” The problem I have is it’s not a new stone. It’s the same old workhorse of the industry, just in a pretty new color and a made up history.
I have my share of customers that are gemstone TV nuts and spend hours watching those little gemstones going round and round while someone tells them all about the wonders of the blahzondarite. Where it was mined (a laboratory most likely), it’s ancient history (it’s still warm from the furnace it was created in), it’s magical lore (whatever), and it’s magical healing powers (i.e.: you can save our dying network by buying this $8 piece of weird colored quartz for 3 easy payments of $89 each). But, the part I do like is when these customers come in my store and thumb through my Stuller mountings book to find just the right setting for their new treasure... cha ching!
In a way though, the home shopping networks help drive the gemstone markets. A couple of the really big networks require quantities in the thousands on hand of the pieces they are going to sell. These orders are placed months in advance to allow for production. If a tanzanite cluster ring has 30 stones in it, and they order 5,000 pieces, that’s 150,000 stones, not counting for loss and breakage. Orders like that can make or break a factory. Tanzanite was virtually unheard of ‘til the ‘80s when a TV shopping network started selling it because they could buy tons of it cheap. After a while though, they’d run out of ideas and the 12 basic gemstones (and tanzanite) just weren’t cutting it anymore. Someone had to get creative, and creative they got.
For a while it bothered me when someone came in with a stone they bought off of the TV and everything they told me about it was wrong. At first I’d correct them. Now, I just crack up and keep my mouth shut. I have a name for this new generation of experts... The Couch Gemologists.
Chuck is the owner of Anthony Jewelers in Nashville, TN. Chuck also owns CMK Co., a wholesale trade shop that specializes in custom jewelry and repair services to the jewelry industry nationwide.