By Deborah A. Yonick
Moonstones, spinels, tourmalines, garnets, and gemstones with interesting patterns, inclusions, and textures were among the bestsellers called out by dealers at the annual Tucson gem and jewelry shows in early February. This year buyers gravitated to both neutral pastel shades and bright, vivid hues, with robust demand for non-treated, natural gemstones—one of the many reasons why moonstones, garnets, and spinels were so popular.
“Trends reveal a push toward more collectible gems like fancy colors in spinel (i.e., cobalt blue, lavender, and color change), Paraiba tourmaline, and Russian demantoid garnet,” says Jason Stephenson of Pala International in Fallbrook, California. He notes that business for the past two years has been especially strong for high-end and specialty items.
For the past five years, moonstone has been extremely popular, not only for high-end customers who want something different, but also for younger consumers looking for silver jewelry that’s more affordably priced, says Paul Dragone, president of the Boston-based Boston Gems. “Moonstone is all natural; it is not enhanced or treated. It’s a unique gemstone that has motion and life. And, it comes in all price points.”
In the moonstone business for 30 years, Dragone believes this stone is riding a wave of popularity that has no end in sight. “Designers large and small love moonstone,” he says. “The red carpet’s favorite designers, like Irene Neuwirth, Deirdre Featherstone, and Temple St. Clair, have been using this ethereal gem for years.” Possessing a vast inventory of moonstones in five varieties, he cites blue sheen moonstone as his most popular seller in Tucson this year.
According to Manu Nichani of Blue Moon Enterprises in Carlsbad, California, moonstones are designer darlings because they bring a lot of “pizzazz” to precious gemstone designs. “Anyone can work with moonstone, which is an important reason why moonstone’s popularity sustains,” he says. “Moonstones are phenomenal gems that have a lot of allure, magic, and mythology around them.”
Nichani says that blue moonstone is always in fashion and cites interesting cuts in moonstone as a key trend, such as rose cut, checkerboard, and briolette, as well as bullet and cone shapes.
Boasting a broadly diverse menu of gemstones, Nomad’s Lapidary saw a few clear favorites in Tucson this year. Tracy Lindwall says the New York City–based gem house sold out of gray spinel at the show. She thinks they were so popular because they offer a neutral color palette that goes with everything. “Also, I think the color is modern and interesting; it’s a good way for people who want less flashy, in-your-face jewelry to have a nice center stone that doesn’t draw too much attention,” she says.
Lindwall also cites bi-color tourmaline as a top seller, but not the pink and green “watermelon” variety, rather new material from Nigeria that’s pink and orange. Nomad is calling it “autumn” bi-color tourmaline. Its combinations of pink and orange are new and exciting, especially for collectors who have everything, she says. “For designers, they get the chance to make something truly unique with this unusual stone.”
Gem buyers also were clamoring for fresh material from a new pocket of the highly sought-after mint green “lagoon” tourmaline from the Erongo region of Namibia, with green continuing to be a sought-after color.
There is certainly robust demand for many vibrant colors, says Claude Markarian of Bellagem Inc. in Duluth, Georgia, who cites neon-pink spinel from Tanzania, Nigerian mandarin garnet, Brazilian red imperial topaz, and green tourmaline from the Congo among her top four gems. “Well-cut stones, high-end goods always sell!”
The selection of fine gemstone types available today is broader than it has ever been, particularly in the last 20 years, says Helen Shull, principal in Out of Our Mines, based in Dyer, Nevada. She is especially keen on the natural, unenhanced varieties of existing gem types that have not been mined or marketed to a great extent, as well as new deposits found of classic gemstones, such as garnets and tourmalines.
While it carries a large range of gemstones, Out of Our Mines is known for mining and cutting natural turquoise and variscite from Nevada, among the many gem-mining operations it’s involved in. Hull says she sees more, younger designers on the scene attracted to natural, unenhanced gems, such as its Firefly Mine variscite with turquoise inclusions and its Ocean Dreams Mine turquoise. She notes that being able to claim that even their gemstones are “Made in America” is very appealing to many artists.
But the unusual isn’t limited to just homegrown stones. Gavin Lasater for The Clam Shell, a supplier of exotic and unusual gemstones based in Oro Valley, Arizona, says a lot of interesting material that designers are choosing is coming from Indonesia, such as fossilized opalized wood, Manakarra purple chalcedony (with the street name “purple grape agate”) that’s a purple cluster of chalcedony crystals, and a unique jasper known as Maligano that has abstract scenic patterns in natural shades of gray, black, and mustard yellow.
Natalie Rodrigues, director of marketing for the Los Angeles-based Omi Gems and Omi Privé, cites no-heat sapphires and rubies as the bread and butter of precious stone sales in Tucson. But this year, gem aficionados were ogling Omi’s selection of rare grandidierite. “We had six gemstones ranging from 1.43 to 4.03 carats, most falling in the 2-carat range,” she says. “Nobody bought, but we had many people come to the booth just to see what it was and learn more in person. People were amazed with the color and color range. More may be available in this fine quality, however it is very difficult to source, hence the high price it demands per carat (for example, the 1.43-carat stone was priced at $10,000 a carat).”
First discovered in Southern Madagascar in the early 1900s, this bluish-green to greenish-blue mineral, with a hardness of 7.2 on the Mohs scale, was virtually unheard of in gem-quality material of facet-able size before the summer of 2015. GIA, in its Fall 2016 issue of Gems & Gemology, wrote about a new deposit of grandidierite that was discovered in May 2014 near the town of Tranomaro, not too far from the original deposit in Andrahomana. Its remote location, issues of security, and the fact that it’s mined by hand will keep the material a rarity for special collectors, with stones above 1 carat extremely difficult to come by.
Eric Braunwart, a principal at Columbia Gem House in Vancouver, Washington, says the biggest trend he has seen in his business is that the traditional market is shrinking and the concept of “precious” is not important to what will soon be the biggest consumer demographic—Millennials.
“Almost everyone with a job will be a Millennial,” says Braunwart about the future of the workforce and Millennials’ growing spending power. “The recession set attitudes down a different path for Millennials, who are guiding where this industry is going when it comes to color. A lot of Millennials are thinking that they don’t want what the industry is telling them they should like. It’s not about precious for them, but whether the gemstone speaks to them. Cool inclusions, interesting cuts are very appealing. Even more important, Millennials care about products with traceable sourcing, that respect the environment, and that give back to the community and workers. These things matter to this generation.”
An advocate for supply chain transparency and fair trade products and practices for nearly two decades, Braunwart says items such as his Fair Trade Gems, American-mined gems such as Montana sapphires, and stones that come in unique cuts are what Millennials are asking for from his company.
Braunwart underscores that smartphones and social media have exploded the market for unusual gems. Platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest have been especially popular to promote an array of colorful jewels. Moreover, telling the backstories of the gems—where they are mined, the folklore around them, or how their production gives back—can tap into the things Millennials care about.