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Diaphaneity – The Secret of Fine Gemstones

Diaphaneity - The Secret of Fine Gemstones

Photo Credit (CC 2.0 license): Matthew Hurst

Diamond quality is judged according to four criteria known as the 4 Cs - color, clarity, cut and carat weight.  Colored gemstones are assessed in a very similar way to diamonds, but only using 3 Cs - color, clarity and cut.  However, there is a little known characteristic that sets the very finest gems apart from more pedestrian stones - diaphaneity.

Diaphaneity is difficult to succinctly explain, but is perhaps most analogous to the transparency of a stone.  The very best gemstones, those that exert a magnetic pull on observers, often possess an uncommon ultra-transparency or super-transparency that allows light to travel through the gem completely unimpeded.

Diaphaneity should not be confused with the color or clarity of a gemstone.  It is possible for a colored gem to have a mediocre, washed out color, but still possess an almost inexplicably alluring sparkle driven by its exceptional transparency.  Of course, the most desirable gemstones will combine excellent color with outstanding diaphaneity.

Likewise, a gem can have inclusions or flaws while still retaining diaphaneity.  Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the almost mythical blue sapphires originating from Kashmir in Northern India.  These deep, velvety blue stones are characterized by silk - tiny rutile inclusions that are only visible under high magnification.  This silk grants Kashmir sapphires a soft, almost dream-like blue color.  However, the presence of silk does not interfere with the diaphaneity of most Kashmir sapphires.

Diaphaneity is absolutely distinct from both clarity and color.  And it gives gems a presence or depth that is singularly attractive.  There is speculation among gemologists that the super-transparency of diaphaneity occurs when a gem grows unusually slowly, allowing for the creation of an unusually regular crystal lattice.  This results in a gem with almost no distortions on the molecular level.

Diaphaneity has had many different names throughout the long history of the gem trade, including transparency and crystal.  However, the oldest name for diaphaneity is "water".  The acclaimed 17th century gem dealer to European royalty, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, mentioned gems "of the finest water" in his writings.  However, the term water was used most notably in the diamond trade of the 19th and early 20th century.  In this period, before diamond grading was rigorously standardized, diamonds of the best water were very highly prized.

In a book titled "Gems and Jewels: A Connoisseur's Guide" the gem trader Benjamin Zucker underscored the importance of diaphaneity in diamonds with this quote:

"Place a Golconda diamond alongside a modern, recently cut D-colour diamond and the purity of the Golconda stone will become evident."

Located in India, the legendary Golconda diamond mines were the source of many of the world's most famous diamonds, including the Hope Diamond, the Sancy and the Regent.  Indeed, almost the entire world's commercial production of diamonds before the mid 18th century originated from the Golconda mines.


Gems and Jewels: A Connoisseur's Guide (book)


The concept of diaphaneity applies to colored stones just as readily as diamonds, though.  Allow me to tell you about my own experience with diaphaneity.  Years ago I went on a gem-hunting expedition to the Jewelers Exchange Building in downtown Boston.  There was one little hole-in-the-wall gem shop that I frequented there.  On this particular day I entered and started looking through the dealer's inventory, but nothing really appealed to me.

And then something in the corner of the display case caught my eye - a magnificently sparkling stone that simply called out to me.  It was a huge, 4.05 carat, vivid pumpkin orange mandarin garnet from Nigeria.  Now, orange is not normally a color that excites me, but this stone was truly exceptional.

Few people know that garnets aren't just red, but also come in all colors of the rainbow.  The orange Spessartite variety, widely known as mandarin garnet in the trade, is one of the most coveted.  As an added bonus, garnets are one of the few types of gemstones that are not enhanced via heat, dyes, irradiation, fracture-filling or other methods.  That makes these completely natural stones perfect for engagement rings or other high end jewelry.

I calmly asked the dealer his price for the orange treasure.  "$125 a carat" he responded gruffly.  I quickly did the math in my head - a bit over $500.  I slipped my wallet out of my pocket and slowly counted $506 in cash onto the counter.  "I will take it" I said quietly, trying to suppress the quiver of excitement in my voice.  The dealer agreed and the deal was consummated.

Now the interesting thing about this story is what made this particular mandarin garnet so good.  There were other orange garnets on display right beside the stone I chose.  They were very similar in terms of hue, clarity and size.  In fact, it was probable that all of these mandarin garnets were originally purchased from the same lot.  It is even possible that the material they were cut from originated from the same deposit.  But only one of the stones was special - the one I purchased that displayed superb diaphaneity.

Diaphaneity is a subtle characteristic.  It is also exceedingly uncommon.  The number of stones I have seen with truly good crystal probably amounts to perhaps one or two hundred out of many thousands (or even tens of thousands).  The layperson, particularly one that only frequents chain jewelry stores, will likely never come across a stone that exhibits good, much less great diaphaneity.  But, if you are a serious gemstone or jewelry connoisseur, collector or investor, the crystal of a gem matters.


Secrets of the Gem Trade (book)


If you want to learn more about diaphaneity, or gemstones in general, I highly recommend a book titled "Secrets of the Gem Trade" by gemologist Richard W. Wise.  It is packed full of useful information, interesting anecdotes and beautiful color photos.  For years I had been striving to find gems with excellent crystal without knowing exactly what that ephemeral quality was.  But once I read Richard Wise's book, all the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place.

Every Woman Should Own a Stash of High Quality Jewelry

Every Woman Should Own a Stash of High Quality Jewelry

I read an interesting comment on the internet the other day that really got me thinking.  An anonymous woman remarked that high quality jewelry is now a luxury that many women can no longer afford.  In addition, she observed that fewer women are wearing fine jewelry on a regular basis.  I've reproduced her comment here for reference:

"Jewelry is now the great divide between the have and have-nots of the female variety.  I still own some silver jewelry, because it wasn’t worth selling when we needed the money.  I get noticed when I wear it because most women don’t have real jewelry anymore.  Even women who can afford jewelry are not wearing it out anymore, but they still have their wedding and engagement rings."

Unfortunately, I must agree with this woman's assessment.  It seems that fewer and fewer women are buying or wearing high quality jewelry anymore.  I think the persistently weak economy is the obvious culprit here.  Sluggish wage growth, coupled with continuously rising housing, food and insurance costs, has squeezed discretionary spending.  High quality jewelry has been one of the many unfortunate victims of this economic trend.

As a result, a lot of budget constrained women have reallocated their precious jewelry dollars from fine jewelry to costume jewelry.  This has been a reasonable reaction to economic pressure because costume jewelry is so much better looking now than it used to be.  As recently as the 1980s and even the early 1990s, costume jewelry was consistently low quality.  It looked cheap and would quickly tarnish or even turn green when exposed to body oils or perspiration.

However, the advent of inexpensive, but alluring, synthetic stones and simulants, coupled with an industry-wide effort to raise the quality of costume jewelry, has made it a much more palatable choice.  This is especially the case when a "real" piece of high quality jewelry might cost several thousand dollars while a similar piece of "fake", but still attractive, costume jewelry might be just a couple hundred dollars.

The trend toward buying and wearing less high quality jewelry is most noticeable among younger women in their 20s and 30s.  An insightful Pacific Standard article titled "Has Technology Killed the Jewelry Industry?" provocatively lays the blame squarely at the feet of smartphones and other portable technology.

There is certainly an element of truth to this accusation.  Samsung, LG, Sony and Motorola all produce covetable smartphones, tablets and laptops.  However, it is Apple, with its insanely popular trio of the iPhone, iPad and MacBook series, that has had the most success.  In fact, I am of the opinion that Apple isn't really a technology company at all, but a luxury technology retailer - a vitally important distinction.  Young Millennial women have, as a group, redirected a significant portion of their discretionary spending into these must-have tech gadgets.  Of course, money spent on smartphones or tablets has to come from somewhere.  And that place is often the high quality jewelry budget.

There has also been a tendency for younger generations to spend money on travel, dining, concerts and other "experiential" activities rather than physical goods.  And once spent on an experience, regardless of how compelling, those limited discretionary dollars cannot be spent on high quality jewelry.

Now that I've discussed why women aren't buying as much high quality jewelry anymore, I'd like to explain why every woman should own a stash of fine jewelry.  The first reason is purely economic.  For centuries, high quality jewelry has been considered a store of value - a savings account specifically for women.  This tradition is still strong in some parts of the world.  For instance, owning a sizable stash of high-karat gold jewelry is considered a necessity for any well-to-do Indian, Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern woman.

The reason for jewelry's persistence over the centuries as a savings vehicle is multi-fold.  Historically, patriarchal laws in many countries prohibited women from officially inheriting property.  High quality jewelry, often received as gifts from family members or spouses, was usually considered to be a woman's property from a legal standpoint.  If her marriage ended in divorce, a woman could confidently walk away from her former husband knowing her valuable hoard of high quality jewelry was all hers.

While the modern world is much more amenable to female inheritance and ownership of property, there is still a vital investment argument for every woman to own a collection of gemstone-studded, high quality jewelry.  Antique, estate, designer or hand-crafted jewelry, made from karat gold, platinum or sterling silver and set with sparkling precious stones, is the glittering epitome of wealth.  Fine jewelry often has a significant intrinsic value that can range from hundreds of dollars for more modest pieces to millions of dollars for legendary jewels.

But the real value of high quality jewelry is the fact that they are miniature works of art.  As a result, well designed and executed fine jewelry is always worth more than the sum of its parts.  And the stylistic choices available are nearly endless.  The flowing, naturalistic forms of Art Nouveau jewelry are nothing like the jagged shapes and sharp angles of Brutalist jewelry.  There is a style of high quality jewelry that will appeal to every woman.

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Perhaps most importantly, nothing highlights the beauty of a woman like fine jewelry.  Whether it is a luscious strand of Tahitian black pearls, a gold cocktail ring set with a glistening blue tourmaline or a pair of simple platinum and diamond stud earrings, high quality jewelry accentuates the best features of a woman in a way no other accessory can.  A woman who wears fine jewelry knows she looks beautiful and, therefore, naturally exudes confidence.  And confidence is priceless.

I understand that many women may not feel comfortable wearing incredibly expensive, high quality jewelry every day.  Less expensive costume or mass-produced silver jewelry works well in these situations.  However, there are certain times in life - weddings, holidays or the occasional night on the town - when a woman just wants to look and feel her best.  For those times, there is no substitute for high quality jewelry.

The Importance of Good Jewelry Settings

The Importance of Good Jewelry Settings

One commonly overlooked aspect of jewelry is the quality of the setting and goldwork.  While good jewelry settings are obviously important to the average consumer, they are absolutely vital to the jewelry investor.  High quality jewelry with excellent goldwork can usually be expected to appreciate in value over time.  On the other hand, poor quality jewelry settings make for pieces that are far less desirable, ultimately fit only for scrap.

Now I will readily admit that a lot of jewelry falls between these two extremes, being merely acceptable or mediocre.  However, mediocre isn't good enough for the jewelry aficionado or investor.  These dedicated collectors want the best of the best.  I suspect many other people aren't satisfied with mediocre either.

When you finally come across a truly exquisite piece of jewelry, it is almost like a religious experience.  Dripping with gold and precious gems, a handmade piece of elegant jewelry transcends the banality of everyday existence.  It is the stuff of legends and myths.  No wonder people have coveted the very finest jewelry for thousands of years.

But there is a catch.  Really high quality jewelry is incredibly uncommon.  More specifically, jewelry settings with high quality goldwork are unusual.  Most jewelry mountings come from giant factories today, many of which are located in China.  You can imagine the kind of quality you can usually expect from these sources.

Of course not all factory supplied jewelry settings are bad.  That would be an oversimplification.  But the very best jewelry settings tend to be handmade.  Hand fabrication allows for an attention to detail and a flexibility that elevates jewelry-making from a simple vocation to a superb art form.

In today's world, it only tends to be expensive designer or artisan pieces that are hand fabricated.  However, many decades ago, even relatively modest pieces of antique jewelry were often partially hand fabricated by a jewelry master.  This old world craftsmanship is another unfortunate casualty of the modern age.

The first thing to avoid in jewelry settings is porosity or pitting.  These manifest as tiny bubbles or holes in the precious metal.  In addition to being unsightly, they also weaken a piece of jewelry, making it more likely to break during normal use.  Porosity is most commonly found in cast pieces.  Incidentally, porosity is the reason you should never buy "recycled" or "green" jewelry that comes from broken or scrap jewelry.  Jewelry scrap can contain significant quantities of solder and other impurities, often leading to poor casting results.

A good jewelry setting will also have no excess or messy solder visible on the back of the piece.  In fact, if used properly, it is almost impossible to tell that solder has been used to join two elements in a piece of jewelry.  But hack goldsmiths will leave sloppy joints with blobs of extra solder due to their lack of skill.  In addition, some poorly trained goldsmiths will use under-karated solder because it has a lower melting point than fully-karated solder, thus making it easier to work with.

The next checklist item to watch out for is irregular or bulky prongs.  These are a surefire indicator that your jewelry was made by a rushed, careless or bad goldsmith.  Bulky prongs will cover far too much of a mounted gem, reducing its brilliance and beauty considerably.  Irregular prongs will also give a piece of jewelry an unattractive, asymmetrical appearance.

Roughly or poorly finished jewelry settings are almost as bad as irregular or bulky prongs.  This is best assessed by looking at the back or other hidden portions of a piece of jewelry.  Lazy jewelers or goldsmiths will leave these concealed areas of jewelry rough and coarse because they aren’t typically visible when the item is worn.  However, a rough finish can easily get caught on clothing and is a universal sign of poor quality jewelry.

In contrast, thoughtfully and skillfully constructed designer or artisan jewelry will have excellent finishes everywhere.  Even the back of these high quality settings will be superbly finished.  Investment worthy jewelry often looks just as good on its back as it does on its front.

Finally, good jewelry settings will exhibit balanced lines, interesting contrasts and appealing forms.  While this takes some experience to easily spot, it is obvious once you've developed an eye for it.  In comparison, cheap or mass produced jewelry settings will feature derivative, boring or awkward forms.  They will also tend to have bulbous or otherwise unattractive lines.

While many people believe the purity of the gold in fine jewelry drives its value, this is rarely the case.  Once a piece is 14 karat (58.3%) gold or better, purity is largely irrelevant.  Instead, the skill and care that went into the creation of a piece of jewelry is much more important.  Truly fine jewelry settings combine beauty and rarity into an irresistible package.  They are the bedrock of any investment grade piece of jewelry.

My Investing Mistakes – Antiques That Got Away

My Investing Mistakes - Antiques That Got Away

This is a rather painful article for me to write.  I'm going to detail some of my biggest tangible investing mistakes.  These were really great antiques I passed on that, in retrospect, I should have purchased.

My investing mistakes usually had one thing in common: they seemed expensive at the time.  Of course, these lost opportunities would all be hideously more expensive today, assuming I could even find items of equal quality.  So, without further regret, let's examine some of my greatest failures as an antique investor.

In 2005, a long-time jeweler in downtown Boston was liquidating his shop and going out of business.  So one Saturday, I confidently strode in armed with a loop and an untapped credit card.  I looked through tray after tray of jewelry, but didn't find anything appealing.  Then I saw it.  A gigantic, unmounted, old mine cut diamond sparkled seductively from a display case.  I asked the salesman to pull the diamond for me so I could examine it more closely.

It was truly a gem.  The stone was huge - approximately 4.5 carats.  And with the exception of its somewhat yellowish tone, which is the norm for old mine and old European cut diamonds, the stone was otherwise excellent.  The cut was well executed and the gem was only moderately included (flawed).

The allure and sparkle of a fine old mine cut diamond is difficult to convey unless you've seen one in person.  In these Victorian era cuts, brilliance - pinpricks of white light - are minimized.  Instead, fire - rainbow colored flashes of light - are emphasized above all else.  And the slight yellow tint of old mine cut diamonds lends them a charming, warm character that is unmistakably alluring.

The stone in front of me was a monster, not only in terms of size, also in the intensity of its dazzling fire.  The salesman was determined to sell the gem.  I was lukewarm.  He wanted $3,500 for it.  I told him no.  He offered it for $3,000.  I said I didn't want to spend that much.  Clearly desperate, he finally said he would let it go for only $2,700 and swallow the sales tax too!  I vacillated.  I really hadn't intended to spend so much money that particular day.

I pushed for $2,500, but the salesman held firm.  In the end I passed, mostly because I felt the stone's color was a little too poor.  I feared it would turn into a white elephant - a showy, expensive item that can't be easily resold because of one, major flaw.  It was one of the stupidest investing mistakes I ever made in my life.

Demand for quality old cut diamonds has skyrocketed over the past decade.  The stone that the salesman practically begged me to buy for $2,700 in 2005 would probably sell for at least $10,000 in 2017, if not more.  That works out to an annualized return of about 11.53% over the last 12 years.  And that is assuming a conservative wholesale price.  If you wanted to buy it from a jeweler or other retailer it would probably be $25,000 or more.  I still have nightmares about passing up that diamond.

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And yet that was only one of many stupid investing mistakes I've made with antiques over the years.  Another incident occurred in 2003 when I was perusing the inventory of a Boston area antiques dealer that specialized in estate jewelry.  This gentleman had a platinum, sapphire and diamond Art Deco brooch for sale that instantly piqued my interest.

This beautiful piece was clearly all original, without any modifications or repairs.  The finely wrought platinum setting was indicative of a very high quality piece of jewelry.  The mounted stones did not disappoint either.  Although liberally sprinkled with small, single-cut diamonds, the real star of the show was the gigantic, deep blue sapphire set in the middle of the brooch.

This was simply one of the finest sapphires I had ever seen.  And it was completely natural as well.  Under the loupe you could faintly see distinctive, hexagonal color banding, a sure sign of a natural stone in the context of a 1920s piece.  This was no synthetic, but a completely natural, untreated sapphire.  And the color was phenomenal - an intense, vivid royal blue that only occurs in the very finest sapphires.  Of course the stone was large.  By my estimate it was at least 1.8 carats and may very well have tipped the scales at over 2 carats.

The dealer wanted $1,200 for the piece.  I countered with an offer of $1,100 in cash.  He knew exactly how nice the item he had was and promptly turned down my offer.  I walked away, ensuring this experience took a hallowed position in my pantheon of antique investing mistakes.  I shouldn't have walked away.  I should have just paid him the extra $100 and exited the shop with my new treasure while thanking God for my good fortune.

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But the economy was bad at the time and I was doing contract work.  I didn't feel comfortable paying full price.  I really, really should have though.  Years later in 2010, the price of good quality blue sapphires jumped by about 50% practically overnight.  The central sapphire from that brooch would be worth around $5,000 in 2017 by itself.  That $1,200 investment grade brooch would probably wholesale for maybe $7,000 or $8,000 today.  That represents a 13.42% annualized rate of return!

I hope that my investing mistakes can be a learning experience for you.  I knew that the superlative pieces I passed over were incredibly high quality.  I simply couldn't bring myself to pay the extra $100, $200 or $300 that the seller wanted for them.  That tiny, additional premium simply seemed exorbitant at the time.

I could not have been more wrong.  The very best investment grade art and antiques often trade at premium prices.  Take my word for it.  Save yourself some heartache and pay the nice dealer his extra $100.  It will be well worth it in the long run.