Women's Jewellery

Hues in power

Ace gem hunters are searching out the world’s most exceptional sapphires, emeralds and rubies to satisfy a new desire for traditional coloured stones. Vivienne Becker reports on the comeback of the “Big Three”

December 17 2012
Vivienne Becker

The world of high jewellery turns very slowly; yet some time in the mid to late 1990s, classic precious coloured gemstones – emeralds, rubies and blue sapphires, the traditional components of such haute creations – suddenly appeared to be sidelined by a kaleidoscopic flurry of fresh coloured gems. High jewellery, rather like couture at that point, had begun to seem anachronistic, and needed a serious fillip of relevance and meaning. Sapphires, rubies and emeralds were suffering from, among other maladies, their long association with staid, diamond-rimmed cluster design.

Now, however, the “Big Three” coloured gems, the grandes dames of high jewellery, are back in the game. A timely combination of factors is responsible. First and foremost, their extreme rarity speaks to today’s unstoppable quest for the truly exceptional. Then, improved laboratory testing and certification have restored confidence – and investment potential adds a final seductive sheen to the whole proposition.

In short, high jewellery is returning to its roots, retaining its design dynamism but giving the most precious and historical gemstones the attention they deserve. Only the very rarest of alternative stones, once termed semi-precious, such as spinels, kunzite or imperial topaz, are carried along in the tailwind of this new appreciation for colour. The bar was set by Bulgari’s latest high-jewellery collection, which revitalised its flair for courageous colour through necklaces showcasing immense sapphires: one of 165.81 carats anchoring ropes of rubellites, garnets and emeralds, another of 180.98 carats, mingling with 278 carats of emerald beads.

This reinvigorated desire for traditional gems is symptomatic of shifts in both the industry and client demand. Important coloured gemstones are now perceived as the ultimate in rarity, and therefore the ultimate in portable assets with high investment potential. Some emeralds, for example, are 20 times scarcer than diamonds of the same quality.

Moris Hadjibay, co-owner of Bayco, a fine-jewellery company specialising in rare precious stones, says that prices for fine, unflawed, beautifully cut gems have more than doubled in the past three or four years, and that over the past six months alone, top-quality emeralds have risen by 50 per cent. Dublin-based Guy Clutterbuck, an intrepid, old-style gem hunter, who looks as though he has come straight out of central casting and who deals with smaller, ethical, artisanal mines, says prices have risen 30-40 per cent in the past two years – and rightly so, he believes, especially in the case of sapphires, which have been undervalued for some time.

Indeed, the premium put on rarity is one of the two most important drivers behind the focus on colour – perhaps the most influential factor in jewellery today. Exceptional natural-coloured gemstones, of superb hue and substantial size, are very scarce and getting rarer all the time, despite new discoveries. Hadjibay says that, for example, only 1 per cent of all Burma rubies (from present-day Myanmar) are of fine quality, and flawless examples are almost impossible to find.

The other driver is legacy: the appeal of heritage stones, early treasures from the fabled mines of Kashmir, Myanmar and Colombia, which are either extinct or simply don’t produce gems of the same quality as yesteryear. Merchants and jewellers avidly search out “estate” antique or vintage stones at auction or in private/family collections, while Alisa Moussaieff, one of the most powerful international stone purchasers, buys back from her own clients. David Bennett, chairman of Sotheby’s Jewellery Department for Europe and the Middle East and of Sotheby’s Switzerland, was expecting high demand for a pair of 1921 ear clips, possessing royal provenance and set with top-colour 11ct Burma rubies, at a sale in Geneva on November 14. (In the event, they far exceeded their estimate to fetch SFr3,330,500 – about £2,239,931.) He says, “A stone’s geographic origin is still vitally important to price.”

There is one more element in the mix: diamonds have enjoyed the limelight since the celebratory sparkle of the millennium, reaching astronomical prices (apart from 2008, when they took a dive but then recovered). Enthusiastic and canny buyers in lucrative new markets have, on the whole, already put together their wardrobes or portfolios of mega D flawless white and coloured diamonds; now, they’re ready to move on to the challenges and charms of fine coloured gems. With increased knowledge, they realise, too, that these jewels offer a stunning opportunity for growth.

Robert Procop, the peripatetic, Los Angeles-based gem hunter, dealer and jeweller, agrees with Clutterbuck’s assessment that blue sapphires have the most potential. A top-quality unheated (completely natural) sapphire might fetch £200,000-£400,000, whereas an equivalent diamond would fetch in the region of £1.5m. Recently, he has received double the usual number of requests for fine, traditional coloured gems over 10 carats, and buying and selling these stones now makes up the bulk of his business. “This is partly because these stones cost a fraction of the price of a comparable diamond, and partly because improved laboratory testing techniques and consistency in identification mean more transparency for the consumer.”

Over the past decade, he has seen the connections between miners, cutters, gem hunters, dealers and jewellers become more joined up than they had been in the Wild West-style world of gemstone extraction, and this too, says Procop, is helping to formalise the industry. He speaks to miners and cutters on a daily basis. “There is a greater consistency of trading in coloured gems; they are now carrying out transactions in the same format as diamonds.”

Gemfields, the ethical mining company that introduced Zambian emeralds and amethysts to the market and is branching into Mozambican rubies, is also working towards bringing greater trust and formality to the traditionally fragmented coloured gem trade – a policy set to deliver benefits to all downstream on the supply chain. It’s this increased confidence that helps the current growth spurt. A decade or so ago there was a period of uncertainty and distrust due to colour-enhancement processes, but this has passed, and fine stones above a certain weight are usually sold with certificates containing details such as origin, treatment and ID. Procop says his clients can buy them knowing that there is a flourishing secondary market.

Historically, Tiffany & Co has always had direct links to the sources of rare coloured gemstones. Early in the 20th century George Frederick Kunz, Tiffany’s celebrated gemologist, was responsible for identifying, naming and introducing to the world new varieties, such as the sugary, purplish-pink kunzite, found in California and named after him, and the pale flesh-pink morganite, discovered in Madagascar and named after the banker and precious-stone collector JP Morgan. Kunz was a true gem hunter, an adventurer with the kind of single-minded passion that seems to characterise all great experts, travelling across deserts and mountains, from Russia’s mineral-rich Urals to the South African bush.

This year, significantly, Tiffany is tapping into the zeitgeist, using the occasion of its 175th anniversary to refocus on its gemstone heritage, with the high-jewellery Legacy collection. Scouring the world for years, the buying team has selected only the best and rarest specimens of gems closely associated with Tiffany: huge and exceptional examples of kunzite and morganite, as well as spinels, green tourmaline, rubies and light and lively Montana sapphires.

Melvyn Kirtley, previously Tiffany’s chief gemologist, now vice president, Tiffany Europe, explains how important it is for the company’s gem buyers to work with the mines, dealers and cutters. “It’s very collaborative. People don’t truly realise what we go through to find the ultimate quality. Our network is searching all the time. Coloured stones are so different from diamonds, which tend to be collected and assessed in a formulaic way. The industry is fragmented; there are thousands of artisanal miners and cutters. It’s all about relationships – who is going to get first choice.” Artisanal mines now include small-scale production in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Urals in Russia and Afghanistan’s Panjshir, which yields few but beautiful emeralds.

Where traditional coloured gems are concerned, legacy is also linked to origin, to legendary mines such as Mogok in Myanmar, now virtually exhausted, or Muzo, Colombia, where mining still goes on and whose name was revived in 2009 as a gemstone “brand” by Muzo International (which has exclusive extraction rights there). Among the most stunning examples of legacy stones and their appeal today is the Mogok ruby, a pigeon-blood red (the finest colour) of 15.97 carats, acquired by Graff Diamonds in 1987 for over $3.5m and said at the time to be the finest ruby in the world. CEO Francois Graff tells how the company has since bought the ruby back and sold it again on three occasions, most recently for five times the original price.

Today Graff provides one of the strongest signs that coloured gems are returning to the fore. Known worldwide for diamonds, with the occasional historic coloured stone (founder and chairman Laurence Graff bought the Duchess of Windsor’s emerald ring), the House of Graff is now making a big play for spectacular coloured gems. Important Kashmir sapphires, rubies and particularly carved emeralds – Mughal style – are set as centrepieces for intricate diamond-clad jewels; the diamonds electrify the coloured gems. Francois Graff attributes the recent surge of demand to Asian clients: “They have developed an appreciation of coloured gems, an understanding of the rarity and investment value of such stones.” Graff gem hunters, too, are continually on the lookout for heritage stones, which are then re-cut to bring out the very best in each – as was done recently with a fine 46.81ct sapphire from an antique brooch, improving not only the shape but clarity and hue, substantially increasing its value.

Laurence Graff describes coloured gems as “deeply enigmatic”, and the depth of knowledge, judgment and understanding they demand lures elite buyers who aim at a new level of connoisseurship that is a status symbol in its own right. Today’s more discerning, informed gem purchasers relish the unique personality of each stone; they enjoy differentiating nuances of hue and tone, and how they balance perfectly with brilliance and clarity. As Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and Sotheby’s Diamonds, explains: “There’s great subtlety in choosing a fine coloured stone. It’s like wine; you have to retain very abstract concepts, to have a recall of colour, tone and brilliance. Buyers are up for that challenge now, to see if they have the ‘eye’.”

Alexandre Reza, among the greatest gem collectors, connoisseurs and designers of modern times, possessed this gift in spades – along with an unerring instinct and an obsessive passion that led him to accrue an astonishing range of the world’s finest coloured stones. He supplied international master jewellers with gems for many years, and later, in the 1980s and 1990s, used them in his own jewellery designs. His son Olivier, a banker, has now taken the reins of the business, opening a private salon in Paris’s Place Vendôme, moments away from the former Reza boutique, where I remember ogling gemstones and regally luscious suites of seemingly impossible value and grandeur.

Olivier, who grew up immersed in the world of gemstones, travelling with his parents to mines instead of taking holidays, also sees colour everywhere compared to, say, five years ago. “Consumers are picking up the fact that in the mid to late 1990s traditional coloured stones were less understood and less available than diamonds.” Yet he feels strongly that the reverence reserved for provenance from Kashmir, Myanmar and Colombia should be reassessed in the light of new sources of coloured gems in Africa – rubies from Mozambique and Tanzania, sapphires from Madagascar, emeralds from Zambia – often extremely fine gems that come without the “designer label” and price tag of historic mines. “It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter where they come from. Often I find a Ceylon sapphire much more beautiful than a Kashmir stone. Buyers should trust their taste, and jump on these new opportunities.”

Nadine Barbey seized the opportunities of the moment when she started her own business four years ago. Having catered to an elite clientele while working on bespoke high jewellery at Van Cleef & Arpels, she intended to do the same in her own right. However, she found that she gravitated towards gem advising, buying and trading, building collections for her clients, many of them royalty. An unlikely-looking gem hunter, she was raised in a family of rough diamond dealers, spent years living in Africa, has explored mines in Australia and Asia, and has traded gems in China – a glamorous woman in a rugged, masculine industry.

Coloured stones have become Barbey’s speciality; she’s drawn to their strong personalities and character. Operating as an expert gem buyer, designer and jeweller, she has created an unusual business model, forging partnerships with miners and suppliers as she sources rubies from Asia, sapphires from Sri Lanka, emeralds from Colombia and black opals from Australia, to ensure supply, quality and traceability. She sees much growth potential for fine black opals, and heavy investment in Africa. She is particularly excited about the exceptional nature of east African rubies and spinels: “They are comparable to Burmese rubies – beautiful colour with no brownish undertones.” She talks, as everyone now does, about the embargo on Myanmar, now no longer in force in Europe but still, as yet, in place in the US. The general consensus is that this will strengthen prices further, as increased supply generates broader interest and demand – although it is thought that China, where rubies have long been prized, is likely to absorb most of the new stones.

Claudio Ribeiro is an ace gem hunter. Portuguese-born and based in Hong Kong, he trades in only the rarest diamonds and rubies, liaising directly with mines, rough dealers and cutters, and selling to private collectors. An ex-investment banker turned gemologist, he understands the investment potential of fine gems, and deals with individuals who have turned away from traditional paper assets. He also relishes the excitement of gem hunting, and spends a great deal of time “knee-deep in Myanmar”, analysing what comes out of the mines, lying in wait for the very small quantities that still issue from the Mogok area. “It is still very much an adventure; it was always legal, but now it’s socially acceptable,” he quips.

He believes Mozambique rubies are the way to go – “their prices have increased significantly in the past year” – but Burmese remain his speciality, and over the past four years he has built a rarefied collection of 11 exceptional unheated, natural pigeon-blood stones, including the largest available Burmese pigeon‑blood ruby – over 20 carats. He is now ready to sell the collection, taking it on a private roadshow for potential buyers to view.

For now, Chinese buyers are certainly pushing prices skywards. In May, a 6.04ct Burmese ruby fetched a record price per carat of $551,500 (US) at Christie’s Hong Kong. There is still room, however, for prices to rise, as François Curiel, president of Christie’s Asia, illustrates: “To put this result in perspective, the best diamonds today are achieving anywhere between $200,000 per carat for colourless ones, and $2m per carat for coloured ones. At a time when collectors throughout the world seek quality, rarity and enduring value above all else, outstanding coloured gemstones hold a greater fascination than ever.”