Nigerian mint green berylNigerian mint green beryl

Fun With Gems: US Buyers Are Reinterpreting What It Means to Be a “Precious” Gemstone

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry and LapidaryFun With Gems: US Buyers Are Reinterpreting What It Means to Be a “Precious” Gemstone

In the nineteenth century, the gemstone market was separated into two broad categories: precious and semi-precious. The four gems in the precious group were diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald. Everything else, including sapphires that were not blue, was relegated to the semi-precious category. This now outdated distinction had nothing to do with the quality of gems. For example, an emerald doesn't have inherently superior traits over a spinel (in fact, spinel is generally more durable than emerald). Rather, the emergence of these categories reflected buying habits and the overall public profile of gemstones. 

classic blue sapphire
This lovely no-heat 32.33 ct. emerald cut sapphire owned by Crown Color US, LLC is an excellent example of the classic blue sapphire. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

As for why diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds were set apart, it all comes down to the most obvious characteristics and depth of historical recognition. 

In terms of desirable traits, diamonds are supremely hard and sparkle while the three colored gemstones all can exhibit the purest expression of red, blue, and green. Yet, some of the so-called semi-precious gems have overlapping color ranges. Also, it is no coincidence that these four gemstones have been known since antiquity, so they had time to gain a devoted following. Yes, the precious gemstones all have the potential to be truly exceptional, but are they "better" than all the other gemstone species out there? Current market trends reflect that buyers say "no".

Each year, I travel to the Tucson Gem Show to ask dealers about their personal observations regarding the international gem market over the last year. My discussions with dealers at the AGTA and GJX shows this year revealed that the trend of buyers gravitating towards unusual gems whose appearance differs from the classic colorless, red, blue, and green experienced in recent years continues, and may even be picking up steam. 

The classic "precious gemstones" are still selling, but there is excitement behind quirky and fresh stones with a lower profile, especially those with non-traditional coloration like teal, minty green, or dazzling eye-visible inclusions. Buyers seem to gravitate towards non-traditional diamonds and sapphires in particular so that is what will be discussed below.  


While each dealer can only reflect on their personal sales record, this year quite a few people said the same thing - diamonds with character have a momentum building behind them that colorless diamonds currently don't. 

What do I mean by character? Diamonds that stray from the beautiful rounds with no eye-visible inclusions and a relatively high color grade. There are three ways that diamonds may show this character. First, stones that are left raw or given only a few basic facets. Second, gems whose noticeable color expression land them a grade in the middle or end of the alphabet and express a good amount of color. Lastly, diamonds with plenty of eye-visible clarity features.

Now, there is a reason why the standard colorless round diamonds have been so popular for so long. Their beautiful symmetry creates a stunning sparkle pattern that also makes gems appear as colorless and flawless as possible. It is no surprise that these gems were, and remain the top choice of engagement ring center stones for many years. 

When faced with this perfection, you may be asking why people are pulling away and moving towards gems that were traditionally considered of lesser quality. Well, the answer may lie in the very statement itself - perfection can be boring, especially if that is all that you see. Currently, the market is being flooded with synthetic colorless diamonds that are ideal in every way, leading some buyers to seek out stones that deviate from the norm.

Rahul Gupta and Brandy Belenky of Raja Jewels Inc. spoke with me about what they call their "non-traditional diamond inventory". That is colorless diamonds showing brown, yellow, or gray color as well as salt-and-pepper stones. They said that their clientele, especially those who are younger, want stones that are "unique and fun". Mr. Gupta and Ms. Belenky report that many of their non-traditional diamond sales are specifically destined for engagement rings. 

salt-and-pepper diamonds sold by Raja Jewels Inc.
A trio of unique salt-and-pepper diamonds sold by Raja Jewels Inc. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Interestingly, Mr. Gupta and Ms. Belenky said they have been asked by multiple clients to find diamonds that resemble moss agate, a type of gem that has intricate green or reddish-brown inclusions. While no diamond with that exact pattern exists, they said that this speaks to the fact that people are looking for visually interesting stones. However, when asked to predict what the market will do in the coming years, they responded that the future is far from set. "Where will it go? We don't know right now. There are still people who want (perfect) naturals. Maybe we will know in three years. The competition between labs and naturals is on everyone's minds."

Ari Jain of House of Diamonds, Inc., sells fancy-colored diamonds in addition to colorless and had some interesting thoughts regarding that market. Pink and blue diamonds, he says, are very popular in Asian countries and with American celebrities. The regular US buyer, he said, has yet to discover these colors. However, Mr. Jain has observed demand for fancy yellow diamonds take off in recent years. This he attributes to very successful marketing strategies on the part of companies like Tiffany & Co. and Graff.  

Indeed, Tiffany & Co. has undoubtedly been pushing fancy yellow diamonds by showing off their 128.54 ct. fancy yellow diamond called the Tiffany Yellow Diamond in recent years. In the almost 150-year period that the gem has been owned by Tiffany & Co., the company has only allowed the gem to be worn publicly four times by four different women. Two of these occasions were in the last five years. Additionally, the plot of the 2022 film Death on the Nile revolved around a diamond, a replica of the Tiffany Yellow, being stolen. There is nothing subtle about these marketing tactics and, according to Mr. Jain, they are successfully raising the public profile and desirability of yellow diamonds amongst US buyers.

Colored Gemstones

Just as contemporary diamond buyers are looking for gems with a modern twist, those shopping for colored gemstones are also searching for something a little different, especially when it comes to sapphires.

Sapphires continue to be popular due in no small part to their excellent durability. This is part of the reason why sapphire and ruby (which is just a red sapphire), were part of that "precious" group to begin with. Their surface hardness is second only to diamond. 

Abulkalam Alawdeen of Starlanka Fine Gems said that the classic blue sapphire has, and will always be, a staple of the colored gemstone market. "Yet," he says "green sapphires have become popular and pricy". Lewis Allen of Crown Color US, LLC specializes in no-heat sapphires. He agreed with Mr. Alawdeen, saying that his customers are asking for "rare, special, unique, one-of-a-kind gems."

Gregory Brancati of Custom Faceting had an interesting observation regarding straight blue sapphires and rubies. Per-carat values for both, he claims, have risen. However, that isn't in response to sales. Rather, Mr. Brancati says that his inventory is slow to sell. Instead, his clients are "looking for something with a unique color (such as) minty greens". 

Nigerian mint green beryl
Mr. Brancati was proud to show off this no-oil, custom cut 2 ct. Nigerian mint green beryl. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Madagascar Imports, LTD is a Montana-based company that specializes in local melee-sized sapphires. According to representative Margit Thorndal, there has been a huge demand for oval cut gems that show a teal color. She noted that large, good-quality material has increased in price and is becoming hard to find. 

Expanding on this, Glenn Lehrer of Lehrer Designs, Inc. spoke about how his "unusual colored sapphires" are selling quickly. This includes the classic Montana teals as well as bi-colored gems. 

unusually colored sapphire inventory
Mr. Lehrer holds a tray of his unusually colored sapphire inventory. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

Sapphires don't just come in blues, greens and reds. They can be any color that you can imagine. Caroline Chartouni and Kalin Korey of Caroline Collection Corp. are very proud of their fun sapphire inventory that includes what they term "nebula sapphires" which are an exciting blend of pink and purple.

purple round cut nebula sapphire from Caroline Collection Corp.
A purple round cut nebula sapphire from Caroline Collection Corp. Photo courtesy of Caroline Collection Corp.

Also regarding sapphires, Tiya Asavarahapun, the owner of Bae Imports LLC, had an interesting point that she has observed "fancy shapes trumping fancy colors". This means that, for some of her buyers, gems cut using non-traditional faceting arrangements are more important than the color expression. 

sapphires with uncommon fancy cuts
The Bae Imports LLC booth had this tray of sapphires with uncommon fancy cuts. © Emily Frontiere. Used with permission.

To sum up, dealers report that their customers continue to seek out variations of diamond, ruby, and sapphire whose appearance is somehow different from the traditional colorless, red, blue, and green colors. Whether that means diamonds that are neither colorless nor round, or non-blue or red sapphires, buyers are becoming more flexible and bolder in their choice of gemstone. Some are even reimagining what engagement rings, whose solitaire design featuring a round colorless diamond that has reigned supreme for so many decades, can look like. In terms of what things cost, per-carat values for the traditional "precious" gemstones seem to be holding steady or even increasing slightly, but prices are also going up for gems with non-traditional colors.

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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