American Gemstones: Domestic Treasures Featured at the 2023 Tucson Gem Show
12 Minute Read
Many in the United States view gemstones as exotic luxury items from romantic, far-away locations. Perhaps you have heard Madagascar called the "Beryl Island" or Sri Lanka referred to more broadly as "Gem Island". Sometimes, gems are named in honor of the country where they were first discovered to imbue them with a romantic association, such as tanzanite for the African country Tanzania or paraiba tourmaline for Paraiba Brazil. It may come as a surprise, but the US boasts multiple gem deposits filled with beautiful and unique stones that have rightfully gained their own following, both on local and global stages. This year, these sometimes-overlooked home-grown treasures could be found taking center stage in multiple booths at the AGTA and GJX exhibitions at the Tucson Gem Show.
The person who provided the best information about the international appeal of American gems was actually the last person I spoke with - Mr. John Dyer of John Dyer Gems (he is this year's first-place AGTA Spectrum award winner for Innovative Faceting). Mr. Dyer's booth was stocked with an array of sapphires artfully cut by himself and his assistants. He acquired these sapphires from multiple places including Madagascar and Montana. Mr. Dyer spoke about how much easier it is for him to sell a Montana sapphire than one of the same color from another country, saying that the US gem has a reputation and unique beauty that appeals to knowledgeable buyers.
It turns out that Mr. Dyer's insight extends beyond sapphires. As we were speaking, one of his associates from Japan joined us at the booth. This fortunate occurrence redirected our conversation and Mr. Dyer discussed how Japanese buyers actively seek out American gemstones of all types and are willing to pay premium prices for US stones based on provenance alone.
"Whether it is tourmaline or benitoite from California, sunstone from Oregon, or red beryl from Utah, buyers from Japan, in particular, go out of their way to seek out American gems," he said.
America has more than just sapphires to contribute to the gemstone market. Let's take a tour of some of the other gems that were up for sale at the show starting with one that is mined by multiple entities and prized for its lively and friendly appearance - the sunstone. Sunstone is a bright gem that can express several body colors, however yellow, red, and orange are arguably the most famous hues. In addition to showing striking body color, some sunstone contains bits of schiller - tiny copper platelets which act like reflective glitter within the gem. When this glitter pattern is visible to the naked eye, it is called aventurescence.
Every year at AGTA, Desert Sun Mining & Gems maintains a booth stocked exclusively with Oregon sunstone unearthed from the Ponderosa Mine. This year, I spoke with one of the owners, Mr. John D. Woodmark, who began mining Oregon sunstone 23 years ago. Over time, he has built a mature business with loyal, long-time buyers who provide his operation with a steady income. He told me that he sells two broad categories of finished gems: smaller calibrated stones which he sends to be cut in India, and larger, more impressive gems which are faceted here in the US.
Mr. Woodmark says that he considers himself "a hobbyist who loves what he does and works hard at it." He explained how the Ponderosa mining operations processed two tons of material in the last year. Of the gem-quality stones uncovered, around 22% displayed a yellow body color and between 8-10% contained enough schiller to result in aventurescence.
The yellow gems that are so often found are also typically the most affordable, with small melee being priced at a reasonable $15 per carat. Prices rise quickly for more desired colors like red, green, and multi-hued gems. If you are looking for a large, fine gem of these colors that weighs five or more carats, per carat costs rise to $600 or more.
As evidenced by the wide array of gems offered by Robert and Patricia Van Wagoner of Beija Flor Wholesale, a company based in Hawaii, few dealers at the show are as focused as Mr. Woodmark on a single gemstone. Aside from the almost obligatory inventory of Montana sapphires, Mr. Van Wagoner takes his buyers on a tour around the US with red beryl gems from the Wah Wah Mountains in Utah to rhodochrosite from Colorado. When asked why carrying American stones was such a priority for him, Mr. Van Wagoner said that he "feels it is important to support local industries."
As evidenced by Mr. Van Wagoner's varied displays, the state of California is a source of many gemstone species. Helen Constantine-Shull of Out of Our Mines unearths beautiful tourmalines from the Himalaya Mine in Santa Isabel. She spoke about the high level of dispersion her California tourmaline shows, which allows those gems to display extraordinary rainbow sparkle when compared to tourmaline from other deposits. Ms. Constantine-Shull said that she offers only the best gems that she finds, selling about the top 5% of all mined material.
Placed next to her tourmalines, I noticed that Ms. Constantine-Shull also had a tray of Oregon sunstone. When I asked her if she got her product from the Ponderosa Mine, she said that her sunstone comes from two other locations near Plush, Oregon - the Dust Devil and Spectrum mines. Thanks to a trustworthy supply chain, customers have grown to trust that her prices remain consistent.
Like Mr. Woodmark, Ms. Constantine-Shull also sends her rough abroad to be cut. However, she chooses cutters in Sri Lanka as she trusts the experienced craftspeople there who reliably deliver beautiful, faceted gems.
Just a few rows down from Out of Our Mine's booth in the AGTA show was the station for Ivey Gemstones owned by Ken and Cynthia Ivey. The Ivey's booth had a truly exciting display filled with multiple types of American gems. As seemed to be the theme of the show this year, they also had beautiful Oregon sunstone sourced from both the Ponderosa Mine, as well as mines near Plush. In fact, Mr. Ivey described how he collected some of this inventory by hand. Like Ms. Constantine-Shull, the Ivey's send their sunstone rough to Sri Lanka to be cut. Mr. Ivey was especially proud to say that all of his gems have been precision faceted by state-of-the-art machines.
In addition to the Oregon sunstone, the Ivey's also offered several other American gems. There was some beautiful tourmaline, as well as purple garnets from Arizona and even agatized coral which he found in his garden in Utah - a mind-boggling discovery when you consider that those corals lived underwater before becoming fossilized and thrust upwards out of the sea.
Purple garnets from Arizona offered by Ivey Gemstones at the AGTA show.
Perhaps one of the most unconventional gems offered for sale at AGTA, Mr. Ivey collected these agatized coral stones from his Utah property which now sits at an elevation of about 9000 ft.
When I asked if American gems are easy to sell, Mr. Ivey let out a loud laugh and said, "Duh!" He reports that the Tucson gem show is where he has secured returning clients whose orders combine to total approximately 95% of his sales. He went on to say that he has noticed that demand for his American gems has significantly increased in recent years. He postulates that this is perhaps due to increased public awareness of the gems thanks, in part, to articles in respected publications like Gems & Gemology.
With so much American sunstone at the show, it was interesting to see that Mayer & Watt had sunstone from Tanzania in addition to American gems. This allowed for a direct comparison of the product from each location, and, indeed, there were differences. Simon Watt demonstrated how his African material sports a clear transparency paired with less intense body color, which allows beautiful red inclusions to be more easily observed.
While Mr. Watt sells sunstone from multiple global deposits, he said that his American sunstone inventory "sells like hotcakes". He gives partial credit to the popularity of the gems with his buyers and the fact that their per-carat prices have remained steady over many years.
As we spoke about the trend of increasing demand for American sunstone mentioned by other sellers at the show, Mr. Watt said that he has seen the same thing apply to other American gems, such as his Montana sapphires sourced from Rock Creek. At this point, Mr. Watt brought up a very interesting theory that the sudden fame of the blue, blue-green sapphires from Montana affected the global market for other, similarly colored gems. Specifically, Mr. Watt believes that the gains in popularity of grey spinel and grey diamonds are owed to the rather abrupt increase in the desirability of Montana sapphires. It is an interesting thought that the market for an American gem could have such far-reaching consequences.
While blue and blue-green sapphires are most frequently associated with the Montana material, they can come from other places as well such as Australia. But is it the color or the provenance of gems that is most important to buyers?
"While the appearance of Australian sapphires can overlap with Montana sapphires, they frequently sell for as little as 25% of the cost of American gems," said Watt. Additionally, he says that his buyers are fully aware of this difference, but elect to pay substantially more money for American stones because they like being able to trace where the gem came from and know where and how they were cut. Ethics and trust, he says, play a big role here.
While sapphires and sunstone are some of the more well-known American gems and were certainly a big part of the shows, the US produces other gems of note as well. One of these is the sparkling peridot. Mr. Rahim Sekandari of Arizona Color Stones & Minerals runs a small operation in which he provides Arizona Apache miners with money and equipment for them to extract the green gem from their land. He then buys the rough product and has the gems faceted.
Unfortunately, Mr. Sekandari voiced concern for the future of the Arizona peridot as he has observed members of the younger generation not being as inclined to work the deposits as their forebearers, understandably preferring less labor-intensive professions. Mr. Sekandari also noted that China has started to export their local peridot stones to the US. On this point, however, he is not concerned about foreign materials impacting his prices, saying that there is no crossover in the market. He is confident that his greener material, which often features delicate microscopic lily pad inclusions, will hold its own against the Chinese gems which generally have more yellow in their body color.
As I made my way around the back of the AGTA show, I was lucky enough to see a booth that I had not noticed on my first trip around the room - one occupied by Washington Jade. The US has limited jade deposits, such as some nephrite in California, but the president of Washington Jade, Nathaniel Cook, showed me some incredible blue jade that has a chatoyant cat's eye effect which is entirely unique to a small patch of land he discovered in Washington state.
Mr. Cook began mining this forested location in 2012 and is extremely proud of his activities having "virtually no environmental impact". In addition to obtaining all necessary permits and carefully following guidelines, he engages in what he calls "natural resource extraction multiple use", to both minimize his expenses and allow the local ecosystem to recover as swiftly as possible.
There are several tricks that he employs to make this happen. First, he follows permitted loggers who clear patches of land in a responsible way. Then, the raw material that Mr. Cook recovers from holes that often measure no more than 10 by 20 feet, is extracted by helicopter, negating the need to create and maintain roads.
The distinctive chatoyant blue jade that Mr. Cook is featuring at the show this year is a recent discovery, having only been uncovered in the last two years. As with any new product, the challenge he faces is introducing it to the public in such a way that it generates enough demand to fund future mining activity and maintain a self-sustaining business. Right now, Mr. Cook describes his operation as "a one-man show."
Fortunately, Mr. Cook has a plan to introduce it to the world. His first step is to build the reputation of the gem by showing it to industry professionals, such as those found at the AGTA show and utilizing social media. Then, Mr. Cook wants to distribute his jade into the hands of jewelers and designers who will then sell it to the general public.
The tale of a new gemstone discovery is an uplifting one that reveals the continued potential to find new and exciting gems here in the US. Not only do we have lovely and famous gems to offer the world, but our gemstone industry is also far from stagnant. You never know what will come out of the ground next!
Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.
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